‘The biggest increases in VPN demand this year have been in sub-Saharan Africa’

Simon Migliano from VPN review website Top10VPN.com discusses VPN effectiveness against African internet shutdowns and the potential for affordable services to meet rising demand.

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Image : Dragana Gordic / Adobe Stock

As Senegal experiences its second internet shutdown in less than two months, virtual private networks (VPNs) have emerged as effective tools to circumvent government-led restrictions on social media platforms. But when governments in Africa take the drastic step of shutting down the internet entirely, such as in Mauritania last March, VPNs become ineffective.

Simon Migliano, the head of research at Top10VPN.com, an independent VPN review website, tells African Business about the effectiveness of VPNs in combating internet shutdowns in the region, potential challenges faced by companies implementing VPNs on a large scale, and the key VPN trends observed in sub-Saharan Africa this year.

How effective are VPNs in combating government-led internet shutdowns in sub-Saharan Africa?

VPNs are highly effective at bypassing restrictions on specific social media platforms, such as Facebook or WhatsApp. A VPN creates an encrypted connection to the internet via a remote server, which allows it to circumvent censorship.

In some countries, such as Iran and Turkey, we have recently seen an increase in attempts to reduce the effectiveness of VPNs by blocking access to internet domains operated by VPN services. Fortunately for the people of the region, this is not yet common in sub-Saharan Africa.

When a government takes the step to actually shut down the internet, whether that’s just mobile internet access or fixed broadband too, then VPNs are no longer effective as they need an active internet connection to function.

Can VPNs be implemented on a large scale for every computer from a company’s perspective?

For a company looking to ensure its access to the wider internet is uninterrupted then there are three main options.

The cheapest and easiest option is to simply install a consumer VPN on every device. A good quality consumer VPN can cost as little as $2 per month and be installed on several devices. The potential downsides are that the company would be vulnerable to any issues affecting the VPN provider, should it get blocked or its servers become overloaded during a major shutdown.

If a business already has an enterprise VPN to provide employees with remote access to its corporate networks then this can potentially be configured to also allow access to blocked content.

The most robust solution would be for a company to essentially create its own VPN by renting servers outside of its home country then routing all of its internet traffic via encrypted tunnels to those servers. The results can be very fast and stable, however this approach does require some networking expertise and potentially greater costs.

If internet shutdowns continue to increase in sub-Saharan Africa, do you foresee the potential for VPN companies to enter the market and offer high-quality and affordable services to African internet users?

There are already a good number of high-quality and affordable VPN services available to African internet users in what’s a very competitive market.

The problem is that for the average user, even paying $2 per month is too expensive when there are dozens of free services available that appear to do the same thing. Unfortunately, the business model of the vast majority of free VPN services is based on selling often extensive user data. Most free VPNs have highly opaque ownership, while a significant number have Chinese owners. This poses a substantial risk to privacy even at the best of times but this is greatly magnified for VPN users in dangerous and volatile situations, such as in Senegal currently.

What are the key VPN trends you have observed in sub-Saharan Africa this year, particularly in Ethiopia, Guinea, Senegal, and Mauritania?

The biggest increases in VPN demand this year have been in sub-Saharan Africa. In Senegal and Ethiopia, the trend has been somewhat similar, in that after a huge initial spike, while VPN demand did drop off, it remained notably higher than it was before the internet restrictions were imposed.

This suggests a more long-lasting impact on the VPN market in those countries. Of course in Ethiopia, access to Facebook and YouTube remains limited several months after the initial shutdown was implemented while in Senegal the restrictions have been in effect for less than a week.

Guinea, where there is typically very weak demand for VPNs, did not follow this trend. Demand for VPNs reached its peak after building for several days and then faded away over a similar period back to the baseline.

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Leo Komminoth

Leo is tech reporter for African Business, based in Dakar, and also works on data visualisations.